To help the homeless, begin with housing

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 6/9/03

To help homeless, begin with housing

By ED LORING

Who are the homeless in downtown Atlanta? They are disposable people. In the turf war that has been going on in downtown Atlanta since the 1950s, the powers that be have been trying to move the poor, especially the black poor, away from the downtown area.

The homeless are those displaced people who the powers have not yet been able to sweep away. Forcing them into treatment centers is only another attempt to sweep them away.

The Constitution of the United States insists on the fundamental right of its people to walk freely on the streets and in the parks of its cities. While the presence of the poor on our city streets is an indication of the failure of our social and political systems, their right to be in public spaces is at least a testament to the strength of the constitutional system.

All of the homeless are human beings. They are much like the rest of us in their hearts and hopes. They are taxpayers; they are people of faith; they are hungry for work at a living wage; they are desirous of love and justice. They are us, and we are they: friends, sisters, brothers. They have nothing and are often taught that they are nothing.

The most visible of the homeless downtown are African-American men. They are the most vulnerable and wounded in our city — the poorest of the poor: easy targets for mean editorials and police braggarts who want to clean up the streets for the glory of our international image. One-third of them are mentally ill, mostly addicted, and exploited and degraded by filthy public policies.

They are seen always as a police issue. Jail provides for meals, showers, beds, books, clothes and medical care. Why not housing and programs to help rather than jails and prisons to punish?

Why are the homeless important in downtown Atlanta? They are scapegoats for the failed and failing policy to make downtown a happy and secure place. A prestigious law firm wants to go: It’s the fault of the homeless. Underground Atlanta still can’t make it: It’s the homeless. The promises of a $200 million aquarium are exactly what an earlier mayor and his assistant who is our present mayor promised that Underground would do: revive downtown, bring in millions of tourist dollars and turn Atlanta into a 24/7 city. If the aquarium fails, it will not be the fishes’ fault. It will be the homeless again.

What if we spent $100 million on the giant home for fish and $100 million on housing for the homeless?

Atlanta’s center could be a place of joy where business folk, tourists and residents would be filled with Southern hospitality.

What should we do? Simple, but costly: do justice, love kindness and walk the streets together. Housing is the fundamental need of the homeless.

The recent report by the Mayor’s Homeless Commission noted that there is no mandate to address affordable housing but that it must be done. Housing precedes sobriety, education, family life, the capacity to hold a job and develop habits of the heart. Housing is first, not second or third.

We wait in the wings for civic leadership to take us toward homes for all, in a city that has a glut of homes valued between $500,000 and $6 million.

But we can remake this city to include rich and poor. None of us are “crackheads,” none of us are the sole source of evil in downtown. We are brothers and sisters, and the Welcome Table has room for all.

Pass the chicken, please.

[Ed Loring, a Presbyterian minister, is a founding partner of Open Door Community, a downtown ministry to the poor and homeless. He has worked for 23 years with people on the streets of Atlanta.]